Alterations in endogenous pain modulation in endurance athletes: An experimental study using quantitative sensory testing and the cold-pressor task

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Abstract

Athletes were significantly less sensitive to mechanical pain but showed higher sensitivity to vibration compared with normally active controls. Assessment of conditioned pain modulation suggests that the endogenous pain-inhibitory system is less responsive in athletes.

There is evidence for long-term alterations in pain tolerance among athletes compared with normally active controls. However, scientific data on pain thresholds in this population are inconsistent, and the underlying mechanisms for the differences remain unclear. Therefore, we assessed differences and similarities in pain perception and conditioned pain modulation (CPM) at rest in endurance athletes and normally active controls.

The standardised quantitative sensory testing protocol (QST) of the ‘German-Research-Network-on-Neuropathic-Pain’ was used to obtain comprehensive profiles on somatosensory functions. The protocol consisted of thermal and mechanical detection as well as pain thresholds, vibration thresholds, and pain sensitivity to sharp and blunt mechanical stimuli. CPM (the diffuse-noxious-inhibitory-control-like effect) was measured using 2 tonic heat pain test stimuli (at the temperature exceeding a subjective pain rating of 50/100) separated by a 2-min cold-pressor task (CPM-TASK; conditioning stimulus). Pain ratings were measured with a numerical rating scale. Endurance capacity was validated by assessment of maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max). Participants included 25 pain-free male endurance athletes (VO2max > 60 mL/min * kg) and 26 pain-free normally active controls (VO2max < 45 mL/min * kg) matched based on age and body mass index.

Athletes were significantly less sensitive to mechanical pain but showed higher sensitivity to vibration (P < 0.05). In athletes, CPM was significantly less activated by the conditioning stimuli (P < 0.05) when compared with normally active controls.

Our data show that somatosensory processing in athletes differs in comparison with controls, and suggest that the endogenous pain inhibitory system may be less responsive. This finding may explain the paradoxical propensity of athletes to develop chronic widespread pain.

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